Last month’s announcement of Marissa Mayer as the new CEO of Yahoo set the blogosphere on fire. Not only did Mayer join the elite (and very rare) ranks of women CEOs, she is also the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the first pregnant woman to assume the helm of a major corporation. Bloggers weighed in immediately. Some hailed Mayer as a role model for working women. Others wondered how she would juggle a new baby while turning around a troubled company. When asked about her maternity leave plans Mayer responded that she would take a few weeks off to have the baby and work throughout that time. In other words, she planned to pause long enough to give birth before resuming her duties as CEO.
While I was thrilled by Mayer’s appointment, as a working mom I was also initially somewhat disappointed that she planned to take such a short maternity leave. My first thought? What message does this send to other women working for Yahoo who become pregnant? Will women ever be able to advance at the executive levels without sacrificing their roles as mothers? As a first-time mother, does Mayer have any idea what she is in for? Let’s see if she can have it all.
You could say I had a Sanctimommy moment.
Then I remembered my own maternity leave, now almost three years ago, and my mixed feelings of excitement about welcoming my new baby and anxiety about all of the responsibilities I’d be leaving at work during my three-month absence. So much was going on at work and I wondered how I could possibly keep it all going. It was hard for me to conceive being gone for three days let alone three months.
I also remembered hard-working women like my sister-in-law, a corrections officer, who had to bottle train my niece almost immediately so she could go back to work six weeks after giving birth. I remember that her story is more the norm than we’d like to admit.
When I became pregnant I scoured websites looking for advice on maternity leave.
What I encountered were lots of explanations about the FamilyMedical Leave Act but no real advice about how to design a maternity leave that allowed me to balance new motherhood and manage my career.
I soon realized there were two types of maternity leave policies: those that we women were legally entitled to through FMLA and the unofficial policies laid out by the corporate cultures we work in.
I am fortunate to work for a very family-friendly organization and have a supportive boss. But I know many women who work in organizations where maternity leave means being consigned to the Mommy Track. It’s one of the reasons I left the PR agency world six years ago. During my years working for two large global PR firms, I noticed that I almost never saw a pregnant managing director or senior vice-president and that most of the senior executives were either men or childless women.
That was one of many clues I was in the wrong work environment for me.
In the last few years, I’ve talked to and coached many pregnant career women. Based on their and my own experience, I’ve distilled these unwritten rules of maternity leave:
1. Don’t announce your pregnancy too early.
For practical reasons it’s good to wait until at least the end of your first trimester to announce your pregnancy when chances of miscarriage go down, but there is another good reason to wait. In some competitive office environments, share your pregnancy too early and you might find yourself left out of plum assignments; colleagues mentally begin to write you off for certain projects because they don’t think you’ll be around to see them through. So while you may be bursting to share your good news, hold out for as long as you can.
2. Understand your legal rights.
It’s hard to believe but there are still stories of women being fired while out on maternity leave. Do your own research to understand FMLA before meeting with your HR department. In most states you are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (Note: If you work for a small business with fewer than 50 employees, your employer is not legally required to offer paid time off for maternity leave) If you decide to do a full three months, often you must use accrued vacation time along with short-term disability. If you don’t have enough vacation time or coverage through short-term disability, you may find your salary reduced for the time you are out. In short, know your rights.
3. Have a plan.
When I got pregnant, I was clueless about creating a written maternity plan. It wasn’t until a wonderful colleague pulled me aside and asked me about my plan, did I think about it seriously. What kind of plan you ask? Who will stand in for you during your absence? What decisions can and can’t be made without you? If you are out during your annual planning period, will you participate and to what extent? What is the status and budget of your current projects? What key milestones are coming up? You should clearly outline these and other issues in your plan so that colleagues can easily navigate during your absence.
4. Communicate your intentions to return to work.
Your boss and your colleagues will wonder if you plan to return to work. Now anyone who knows me, knows I’d make a lousy SAHM but that didn’t stop people from wondering if I was planning on returning to work. There was enough buzz about this that I made it very clear I was coming back and to call off the vultures looking to pillage my office in my absence. The lesson? Don’t assume people know your intentions. If you are returning to work, let people know.
9. Expect the unexpected.
Never in a million years did I expect to have a C-section but after more than 30 hours of labor, that is exactly what happened when my labor failed to progress. My recovery was long and I had far less mobility in the early weeks after giving birth that I would have ever guessed. I gave birth in mid-November and had planned to attend my company’s December board meeting for a couple of days. Recovery from the surgery was brutal and the only thing I could do for a month was lie on a couch, nurse and watch back episodes of Mad Men. The moral here? Expect the unexpected and be ready to roll with it.
10. Figure out your childcare before the baby arrives.
One of the biggest mistakes I made was not figuring out my childcare before D2 was born. It wasn’t an intentional oversight. With my hectic work schedule and finishing up my MBA, I barely had time to breathe let alone figure out who would watch my son when I returned to work. Big mistake. I ended up spending the last part of my maternity leave interviewing nannies. I was a frantic mess and in retrospect probably scared off a few good candidates with my new mom frazzle. If I had to do it over again, I would have had my childcare figured out during my last trimester. If you are trying to get your sprout into a popular daycare, you may find that you’ll need to get on a waiting list even before your baby is born. So don’t put it off. You’ll thank me later.
Despite the C-section and the normal new-parent curveballs, I ended up having a wonderful maternity leave. My team did an amazing job while I was away which allowed me to focus primarily on my baby even though I lurked on email a bit and took the odd call or planning meeting.
It’s a shame in the US we don’t have better policies that allow new mothers (and dads) to spend more time with their newborns. I feel jealous of my European collegues who often get up to a year or more of paid family leave. We are a long way culturally and policy-wise from such a change. On the positive side, I see more employers recognizing that a generous family leave policy is an excellent tool for retaining top employees and cultivating more women in senior management positions. It’s a good sign.
What I know now for sure is that maternity leave is a sacred time. It’s critical bonding time with your baby that you can’t get back. With some advance planning, good communication with your colleagues and a willingness to be flexible, I think it’s possible to take this crucial time while still managing the demands of your job. So don’t cheat yourself or your baby. Get creative and make it happen.
Now it’s your turn. What do you know now about maternity leave that you wish you had learned before you gave birth? What advice do you have for new moms? If you are expecting, what worries you about your maternity leave? I want to hear from you. Let’s talk.